#2 = Volume 1, Part 2 = Fall 1973
Change, SF, and Marxism: Open or Closed Universes?
NOTE. This exchange of opinions came about when we asked Mr.
Blish to reply to Dr. Rottensteiner's critique, and having received the reply,
saw that the two contributions taken together raised questions of interest for a
further debate. We then asked several other people, including the three other
contributors to comment on them. All these people were sent copies of the
Rottensteiner-Blish exchange; it was technically impossible to let any of them
read the other two contributions in time to reflect on and reply to them too.
The reader is asked to keep that in mind for a just evaluation. The pages of SFS
will he open to further significant contributions to this debate on
"Change, SF, and Marxism: Open or Closed Universes?" with a maximum of
one thousand words. --DS.
FRANZ ROTTENSTEINER. ON AN ESSAY BY JAMES BLISH
In the essay "Future Recall"' James Blish is playing the old game
of finding a function for SF. He quite rightly demolishes some of its claims:
Thus far then, I have said that science fiction is not notably prophetic;
that it is not educational in the usual sense; that it is steadily writing
itself out of the business of suggesting inventions, or careers in science;
and that even the free-wheeling speculation which used to be it's exclusive
province can now be found in many other places, including the pages of Nature.
I have only to add that even as fiction most of it is poor--and it will
appear that I have pulled the rug out from under the genre entirely.
But not so, continues Mr. Blish, for SF is the literature of change. It
"attempts to help us prepare for the changes" that the real world is
undergoing. Now as we know, "change" is the om mani padme hum in
the prayer mills of SF authors, repeated there ad nauseam. Perhaps we
need to look at some principal considerations.
How can change be shown in literature? In two ways: by static contrast, or as
a dynamic process. The second way, of course, is the more difficult and
intellectually the more sophisticated. Therefore most SF is conspicuously silent
concerning the rules that govern and motivate change, and offers only the
cliché of the "progress of science and technology" instead of useful
analyses. When SF attempts to show motivations, it falls hopelessly behind the
theoretical level achieved by contemporary philosophical and sociological
thought on the subject. When sociologists have written about SF, they have
mostly diagnosed its static, conservative nature.
Therefore most SF shows change by way of contrast; another strange and alien
world is presented; some other time, space and society, with nothing to explain
how these worlds came about. The reader can only accept the premises of such
stories. But then SF does only what any historical novel or any
"mainstream" book from another era does. And while it is true that
"mainstream" fiction does not emphasize change, a sampling of world
literature makes it quite obvious that the world is changing and has always been
changing, at least in the field of social attitudes, cultural norms and mores,
and so on. One of the major themes of literature is the struggle between
generations, between the old and the young, because the old can no longer
understand the quite different views of the young. But you don't find this
conflict in SF (e.g. Heinlein depicts different, but quite static societies,
where children believe exactly what their daddies tell them, with no back-chat),
nor character development. In SF there can be no development of character,
because there are no characters. If a "character's" ideas change, then
we are forced to believe in miracles, since we are shown no other psychological
motivation. But I have still not looked at the main question about the
"therapeutic" value of SF as postulated by Blish. Are readers of SF
really better equipped to face change than the people who refuse to read the
stuff? What really can ESP powers, feudal societies, time travel, worlds in the
atom, intelligent robots, invaders or monsters from space, and all the other
paraphernalia and worn-out gambits of SF, contribute to our preparation for the
future? Anyone who reads contemporary SF to help him survive in the future
would, to put it mildly, be wasting his time. After reading widely in SF, the
disinterested observer will find a total innocence of SF writers as far as real
problems and likely developments of the future are concerned. He will find that
the "changes" SF envisions bear no relationship whatever to the real
course of the world, as they are only resurrections of old clichés, dead modes
of life, dim myths and popular superstitions firmly rooted in the subconscious
of mass-man. SF is not a branch of epistemological fiction, but a new kind of
opium for the people, offering wish-fulfillment instead of cognition.
The best indicator of the intellectual degradation of English-language SF and
its resistance to radical and real change can perhaps be found in its attitude
or rather silence towards Marxism. It must make you think when you realize that
no American or English author has written a story that would endorse a Marxist
view of change, or at least contain an intelligent discussion of it. Now those
authors would probably all claim that they consider Marxism to be wrong.
However, rightness and wrongness is irrelevant in this context, for SF authors
endorse views or incorporate views into their stories that most certainly are
wrong: the Bates method of eye-training, for instance, dianetics, the tarot, or
astrology. Even on statistical expectations, one would expect at least a few
authors to be familiar with socialism. For Americans, Marxism is probably a most
alien system of thought, therefore those authors who say they describe change
and other possible societies should leap upon Marxism as an example of radical
change. That they don't recognize this direction of thought is a clear
indication of their conservatism. Also, wrong or not, Marxism is one of the most
important philosophical and economic systems of our time, the official doctrine
of millions of this planet's inhabitants, the hope of several hundred million
more in the undeveloped countries, and it is heatedly discussed by intellectuals
all over the world. it just isn't possible to dismiss such a system out of hand,
even if you consider it wrong, for it will certainly help to shape the future.
The main difference between the ready acceptance of crank theories by SF and its
neglect of socialism seems to be this: the more banal a System is, the more
easily it can be assimilated and digested by trivial fiction. An example: note
the crusade-like manner in which even the most trifling stylistic innovations
are quarreled about by the fans. This seems to show that SF readers are
ill-equipped to realize the various claims for their acceptance of
"change." For when they react so violently to such unimportant
matters, how will they react to changes involving their personal lives?
To sum up: to stress change is but a fairly useless cliché. It is far more
important to look at the specific qualities of change, and this SF does not do.
For in the future we will find no galactic races offering gifts to us; no
talking human-like robots; no "spindizzies" with the physical
properties of flying carpets, but lacking their charm; there will be neither
time-travel nor extrasensory perception; and Poul Anderson's naive belief in the
fine art of fencing won't help anyone.
There is another point which Mr. Blish should have considered, but did not
touch upon: why must SF be a fiction of change? With so many popular journals,
newspapers, books of futurology, and so on, to tell you about change, how does
SF justify itself, especially as the other media reach a much wider audience
than SF, and are much more precise in their descriptions of change?
JAMES BLISH. A REPLY TO MR. ROTTENSTEINER
Having first read Mr. Rottensteiner's review in Quarber Merkur filtered
through my bare acquaintance with his beautiful native language, and now having
read it again in his better command of mine, I must admit at the outset that I
can still only guess at his objections to my essay. There seems to me to be two:
(1) he does not agree that SF is "the literature of change"; and (2)
he thinks that SF in the West ought to pay more attention to Marxism.
(1) The fact, which he points out, that I did not invent the notion that SF
uniquely prepares the reader for our present situation of almost exponential
change is an ad hominem argument which may be dismissed forthwith as
such. I never claimed I did; moreover, many people have stated it better than I
have, and I have made some attempts since 1969, when I wrote the essay he
attacks, at qualifying it and setting limits upon it which apparently have not
come to his attention. All that matters here is that I still subscribe to it and
that I think his case against it is flabby.
I so think because he uses "literature" in two senses without
allowing that there is any difference between them. One of these senses allows
the term to cover any published work of substance, including works in
philosophy, sociology, popular journals, newspapers and now futurology (not a
collection I would lump under "works of substance," but since he
implies that he does, I take it as read). In this sense, it's not difficult to
recognize that there are only a few great minds, and that the followers of each
derive, dilute, break up into small schools, and eventually disappear into
niggling, feuding little brackish backwaters of no importance whatsoever to the
history of thought or the life of the mind. I adduce Freud; he wrote not one
word that I admire except aesthetically, yet it should be easy to see that,
whether one agrees with him or not, his whole scholium goes downhill from him
and follows the natural history of the degeneration of an original idea to the
inevitable useless quibbling within a pack of doctrinaire idiots. I further
adduce such other marvels as Plato, Christ, Duns Scotus, Roger Bacon, Hume,
Berkeley, Nietzsche, Marx, Spengler, Pareto, and Wittgenstein; Mr. Rottensteiner
will have his own pick of pernicious thinkers among these, as I have mine, but
neither of us will find it difficult to see that every one has had no followers
who haven't been lesser men than they were.
In the second sense, "literature" is limited to the world of
poetry, drama, fiction and various secondary arts such as criticism. Those who
enjoy and value this do so because it supplies them with a number of things not
obtainable from works of philosophy or sociology. It is to this world that SF
belongs. One of the things good SF does is to show how given individual
human beings might react to a postulated environmental (including social and
technological) change. I will grant that not many SF stories actually do this,
and still fewer do it well, but this is simply to grant that most SF also is
bad, which has no bearing on the main argument. Contrary to Mr. Rottensteiner's
sweeping dismissal, there are some good examples, and their existence shows that
the possibility of doing it is inherent in the medium. The improbability of most
of the postulated changes is another side-issue, first because it's impossible
to weigh them -- the world I live in now would have seemed an almost solid mass
of improbabilities to the one I was born in half a century ago -- and second
because we are not talking about any specified proposed changes, but the process
of change itself.
(2) It has always been my impression that Marxism had a deep and visible
influence upon the work of Olaf Stapledon, to cite one English language SF
author Mr. Rottensteiner's other blanket dismissal cannot sweep away. In America
in the 1930's quite a number of SF authors were sympathetic toward socialism,
and one group in New York City, the Futurian Society, was formed exclusively for
those who were either actual members of the Communist Party or espoused the
Party's policies. Later, the barriers were lowered a little to admit Trotskyites
as well as Stalinists. The aim of this group, proclaimed publicly at a World-Con
by John B. Michel with a pamphlet to back him up, was to use SF to help bring
about what they believed to be the future. They wrote and published SF stories
with this intent. The stories were bad, which is doubtless why Mr. Rottensteiner
has never encountered them -- even I, who knew all the, authors at the time and
read the stories, can't cite any of the titles from memory--but they did endorse
the Marxist view of change, or whatever version of it the American CP was wedded
to at the time, so Mr. Rottensteiner's "statistical expectations" are
in fact satisfied. And of course the badness of the stories was the fault of the
authors, not of the subject, for good SF stories with socialist assumptions also
exist; that these assumptions found their way only into bad stories in the
U.S.A. is unfortunate, but again, irrelevant. Contrary to Mr. Rottensteiner's
statement, they exist, which should be quite enough to "make you
In my opinion, the minor (not non-existent) role Marxism has played in
English-language SF may be due to the very fact he cites, that it is "the
official doctrine of millions of this planet's inhabitants." Nazism was the
official doctrine of (fewer) millions for a while, and while some tags and
attitudes of Fascism have popped up, sometimes fairly consistently, in the works
of some English-language authors, only one, M. P. Shiel, can in fairness be
described as espousing the Nazi version of it (before the Nazis were in power),
and it's equally unfortunate from a non-literary point of view that as a
novelist he is quite as good as Stapledon; and I can think of only two American
stories, both good, that adopted Fascist economic theory. We may be
tempted to attribute this dearth to human decency, but then we might well use
the same point against Stalinism. It seems to me far more likely that most SF
writers in the West are fundamentally antipathetic toward "official
doctrine" no matter what form it takes, and when they have made any use of
it at all, it has been as material for satire. We do not, in fact, like closed
systems of any sort, and if we use them, do so only for the sake of the story in
hand. Let us take one of the most conspicuous examples, A. E. van Vogt. He has
adopted Spengler, Nietzsche, Bates, Korzybski, Graves and both halves of Hubbard
(and I may have missed a few others), and unless I completely mistake Mr.
Rottensteiner, the latter cannot believe that there is anything good to be said
for any of these theorists; and with various reservations, a few of which are
serious, I would agree with him. But what is much more important is that all of
these untenable, antithetical or just plain ill understood assumptions have been
advocated by a single author (restlessness within closed systems), and
that every one of these source-authors, though one of them is not banal and has
influenced millions and another is the simplest kind of crank, is a would-be
revolutionary (antipathy to "official doctrine"). Though we may be
detected carrying placards now and then, most of us find the posture acutely
uncomfortable, as most writers of any sort of fiction do, and should; and as
writers whose fundamental sympathy lies with continuous and unexpected change,
we would find ourselves drowned out if we got trapped into beating the same drum
over and over again. In SF, no notion, not even Bates eye-exercises, is so
monstrously trivial as having a mind closed to all ideas but one, no matter how
important and complex that one may be. A failure to understand this implies
incomprehension of any sort of creative enterprise.
I may not believe a word of this tomorrow. This would surprise me but it
would also please me.
URSULA K. LE GUIN. SURVEYING THE BATTLEFIELD
In attacking the achievements and potentialities of SF as he does, Mr.
Rottensteiner is in a very strong position. The massed armies of Lit. Crit. are
behind him; he has enlisted the storm-troops of Futurology; he holds all the
advantage of the ground, of strategy, and of recognized legitimacy. Mr. Blish,
speaking for a ragged crew of dissidents, very few of whom are even willing to
be represented by him, their main concern being quarrelling with one another,
stands on the shakiest ground, and with resolute gallantry defends the all but
It is only too easy for a bystander (like Pierre at Borodino) to point out
the weaknesses in Mr. Blish's arguments. If, for all Marxist influence in any
lasting or meaningful sense in English-language SF, one can point only to
Stapledon--scarcely an orthodox Marxist!--perhaps that point were better
conceded altogether. If one reduces all philosophy, theology, social thought,
etc. to the works of "a few great minds" and a mess of squabbles among
their "doctrinaire idiot" followers, perhaps it were better not to
mention these topics at all. On these issues, it almost seems that Mr. Blish
seeks deliberately to make his position more untenable than it already is.
But what does our Napoleon, Mr. Rottensteiner, do? How does he deploy his
magnificent artillery? With wonderful consistency. He spikes every gun he's got.
The technique is familiar. With, unmistakably, the purest motives, the most
earnest, honest admiration, Mr. Rottensteiner has done more to build up
antipathy towards his friend Stanislaw Lem among English-speaking readers, these
past couple of years, than Lem's worst enemy could have done. He has overpraised
Lem, oversold him, used him to make invidious and otiose comparisons, translated
his difficult, vigorous, genial style into pedantic, ham-handed English, and in
short done everything possible to make his books disliked before they are read.
Fortunately, Lem is so very good a writer that his works, as they appear in
English, will survive this introduction. Nothing can hold a talent like that
down; but Mr. Rottensteiner, with the best intentions in the world, has
certainly tried. And in this essay, he's at it again.
Personally, I agree with most of his main points: and, having read them as he
states them, am ready to deny them all categorically. I think that if I was told
in this tone of voice that energy equals mass times the square of the velocity
of light, I would deny it. This is not, however, a mere matter of tone of voice,
of manners or "taste." The solidest idea, if presented by a bigot,
loses its solidity; it becomes, not an idea any more, but a dogma--a much more
tenuous, and less interesting, thing. Mr. Rottensteiner is not a bigot. Rather,
he is passionately, and admirably, concerned. But an unbalanced concern, or an
overly polemical one, becomes fanaticism; and so we see this intelligent man
suddenly ascending the pulpit and speaking ex cathedra. Those of us (possibly
including Mr. Blish) whose conscience insists that we mistrust any statement
that sets itself above debate, must wince to see sound arguments thus rendered,
if not untenable, certainly intolerable.
I do not wholly subscribe to Mr. Blish's ideas of the usefulness of SF, if
indeed I understand it. I am extremely suspicious of any usefulness at all being
ascribed to literature: in fact, of the whole criterion of usefulness as applied
to literature, music, oak trees, oceans, persons, etc. -- unless a great many
other criteria, of equal or superior value, are applied at the same time. But
this idea of a "literature of change" is not the main drift of his
reply to his critic. He states his main idea plainly and cogently: the idea of the
open system. (It is an idea, by the way, with which I believe Stanislaw Lem
agrees; in a very closely equivalent context -- talking about the faults and
potentialities of SF -- he calls the same thing the open universe.)
I only wish that Mr. Blish had remarked (thus undercutting his opponent on
his own ground--sawing through his pulpit, as it were) that the dislike of and
restlessness within the closed system also characterizes the best
Soviet/Communist-nation SF. The supreme example is probably Zamyatin's We.
(We, of course, has never been printed in Russia. Ardent anti-Communists
may take comfort in that fact, though I do not see how they can take comfort in
the fact that it was, after all, written in Russia, and by an old
Bolshevik at that.) Zamyatin's novel perfectly exemplifies Blish's central
point, that SF operates effectively only in an open system.
The open system is not, cannot be, merely the writer's society; essentially,
it exists in his mind.
"Marxism" can be accepted as an open system (Marx) or a closed one
(Stalin). "American democracy" can be taken as an open system
(Jefferson) or a closed one (Nixon). What must be remembered is that, if the
individual has decided to opt for the open system, he is free to go beyond it.
If his society or his government forbid him to do so, and if he accepts that
decree, then he is living in a larger, but not an open, system. He has let the
door be shut again.
The intellectual crime for which Zamyatin was reviled and silenced was that
of being an "internal emigre." (The American equivalent would be
"un-Americanism.") This smear-word is a precise and noble description
of the finest writers of SF, in all countries.
Mr. Rottensteiner is altogether justified in criticizing SF writers who,
living in nations without overt censorship, yet choose to shut the door, to
close their minds into hermetic ideological systems such as free-enterprise
capitalism, Social Darwinism, Catholicism, or pseudo-ideologies like dianetics,
and thus to cripple their imagination and their intellect. But what is lacking
in his criticism is humanity. He says, "Stop! You are wrong!"--but he
does not say, "Look around--you are free." His critique is
authoritarian, not libertarian. The idea of simply opening the door and leaving
it open seems not to occur to him. And this is why Mr. Blish, with his shaky
arguments, making his hopeless defense of a lot of shoddy writers, finally
appears as the only man left standing upright in a shambles of verbiage. For he
is speaking, across all national and ideological boundaries, for the liberty of
the mind. Mr. Rottensteiner has all the artillery; but if there are any angels
around, they are on Mr. Blish's side.
H. BRUCE FRANKLIN. A RESPONSE FROM A MARXIST
Franz Rottensteiner criticizes Anglo-American SF for its failure to give any
expression to a Marxist outlook. This is extremely mild criticism, for in fact
Anglo-American SF does not merely ignore Marxism, but is profoundly hostile to
it. The main body of English-language SF writers range from conscious
anti-Communist propagandists such as Ayn Rand, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and
Robert A. Heinlein, to writers who are politically ignorant and so thoroughly
conditioned by anti-Communist assumptions that they echo their rulers and
masters without even knowing what they are doing.
As a Marxist myself, I would go considerably further, to a more fundamental
criticism. To me--as to the vast majority of intellectuals in Asia, Continental
Europe, and Latin America--Marxism is the only science one can intelligently
bring to bear on any overall discussion of humanity's future, near or far. Only
in Great Britain, the United States, and the English-language regions of
Canada is Marxism not generally regarded as the science of human history--past,
present, and future. To most of the world's intellectuals, the philosophical
bases of Anglo-American SF seem like bizarre anachronisms. It is as though a
section of the world insisted on trying to build a science of matter by relying
on medieval metaphysics while pretending that experimental physics had not been
invented (or that Isaac Newton was the mastermind of a sinister global
conspiracy aimed at reducing humanity from glorious beings to mere machines).
Most of the SF of Great Britain and the U.S. seems as irrational as the
societies that produced it. This should be no surprise. Anglo-American SF does
not project the future of the world; it merely reflects the realities of these
two dying empires. Imaginary inter-galactic wars of conquest against alien
beings are natural products of societies whose entire history has flowed from
genocidal wars against people of color throughout the world. And the grotesque
worlds of Anglo-American SF in general are not too far removed from the social
worlds of Great Britain and the U.S., whose vast productivity, instead of being
used to satisfy human needs and desires, debauches human existence and poisons
the environment, creating anarchic urban jungles built on exploitation, drugs,
sex for sale, and every conceivable form of predatory relationship. And what
could be more improbable than the fact that these vast empires are ruled by
gangs of master criminals, who command armed forces capable of annihilating all
life and who deploy involuted networks of uniformed and secret police utilizing
the most advance electronic surveillance systems?
James Blish's responses to Rottensteiner's criticism are mere reflex actions.
The key sentence in the debate is Rottensteiner's timid understatement:
"Also, wrong or not, Marxism is one of the most important philosophical and
economic systems of our time, the official doctrine of millions of this planet's
inhabitants, the hope of several hundred million more in the undeveloped
countries, and it is heatedly discussed by intellectuals all over the
world." Blish ignores all the main points of this conservative declaration
of fact. Instead he obediently leaps at the words "official doctrine."
Like all loyal citizens of the Anglo-American Free World, he loudly proclaims
his scorn for the slavish Communist "official doctrine" (and all other
foreign ideologies). Of course we have no ideology, and nothing controls or
determines our thinking, particularly if we happen to be such free, creative,
individualistic beings as SF writers and critics.
Of course, being a liberal, Blish has to show that he's just as tolerant of
Marx as he is of other "great minds." So he puts Marx in a hodge-podge
list in the free academic marketplace of solitary geniuses. Pick your favorite
"pernicious thinker," he offers, and do with him what you will. But
among these, Marx alone provides the basis for a serious, intelligent, scientific
science fiction. And of far more fundamental importance, the hundreds of
millions of people who are determining humanity's future are not and will not be
guided by a metaphysical maniac like Bishop Berkeley, a theorist for an ideal
conformistic police state like Plato, or any embodiment of ancient superstition,
"We do not," declares James Blish, "like closed systems of any
sort." Well, Marxism is the opposite of closed. It is not the reflections
of some solitary genius, but rather a developing science which puts into the
hands of the people the control over their own destiny. Blish fails to see that
it is we in the U.S. who function within a system as closed as that of the Greek
slave empire that also called itself a "democracy."
In fact the interlocking Anglo-American empires have decayed so far that they
have produced some SF that does indeed border on a Marxist analysis. Advanced
state capitalism has now given birth to a whole body of SF works that project
the next stages of its monstrous cancer. Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano,
Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants, Pohl's
"The Midas Plague," Robert Silverberg's "The Pain Peddlers"
and "Company Store," Robert Sheckley's "Something for
Nothing," J. G. Ballard's "Subliminal Man," John D. MacDonald's
"Trojan Horse Laugh" and "Spectator Sport"--all these are
good projections of what capitalism might become if it were not destroyed. But
capitalism is in the process of extinction, and those who are wiping it out and
replacing it with a decent human society are guided by the science of Marxism.
My criticism of James Blish is not intended to be an attack against him
personally, but rather against the all-too-common ideas he expresses. We
Marxists believe in vigorous and forthright debate of these issues of life and
death. On the other hand, the apologists for the "Free World" usually
conduct their side of the debate by exclusion, repression, open terror, and mass
violence. The methods used to silence us, including my firing from Stanford
University for giving political speeches, are typical of those employed against
all who express revolutionary Marxism. Like many of her comrades who try to base
their lives on this philosophy, I have been deprived of my livelihood, arrested
several times, beaten by the police, and most recently, had my door kicked in by
two dozen agents of the federal secret police (F.B.I.) who held my wife and
three children at gunpoint while they kidnapped me on charges they later had to
drop. But this terroristic repression only increases our determination to expose
and change the exclusion of Marxism from our lives. To me, the exclusion of
Marxism from SF is intimately connected to the world-wide campaign of terror and
suppression being waged by this frenzied dinosaur empire.
CHANDLER DAVIS. THESIS, ANTITHESIS, SYNTHESIS
Thesis (Blish): SF is the literature of change. Antithesis (Rottensteiner):
No, it's not.
And yet Mr. Rottensteiner agrees that it ought to be, and at its best, is. He
complains that it mostly doesn't do the job Mr. Blish assigns it; but that, Mr.
Blish concedes. There is still a real issue here. But in defining it, let me
treat not the mass of mostly undistinguished SF, but rather an ideal type
abstracted from the best of it--or even a desired new literature for which
something in SF raises hopes.
A whole generation of young English-speaking fans--Mr. Blish's generation and
mine--surely came to SF seeking a literature of change. Whimsy, intellectual
playfulness, we had. It merged into a Faustian intellectual arrogance: we were
god-like, since we could contemplate so many worlds. For many fans that was as
far as it went. But our generation too had those--Mr. Blish and me among
them--who opposed as Mr. Rottensteiner does the merely playful in SF. For
"our" literature, even when it was light or satirical, we had serious
We believed in the mutability of the assumptions integral to the inherited
social order. We welcomed the writer who exposed their evitability--whether it
was Karl Marx or Jonathan Swift or Ruth Benedict or Olaf Stapledon.
We believed the Future just as real as the present. We welcomed the writer
who attacked the illusion that nothing will happen--whether it was Karl Marx or
H. G. Wells. We welcomed (to the extent that we could find it) the kind of
future fiction that fit Heinlein's epithet: "more realistic than most
historical and contemporary-scene fiction."
We believed in a human responsibility to act, to make history. We
welcomed the rare writer who pictured different roads, both possible, and called
us to take part in choosing--whether it was the Marxist Jack London or the
anti-Marxist Aldous Huxley. Granted that the hours we devoted to SF were not our
most activist hours, were perhaps even escape, still we saw in SF more than
horrid or radiant futures, or worlds of what if: we sought real problems truly
Marxism seemed neither absent from SF (Rottensteiner) nor peripheral to it (Blish).
Marxism seemed to treat questions which were of SF's essence. And our then view
of SF's essence underlies Mr. Blish's present view: "It is in stretching
the mind to accommodate this multiplicity of possible futures that science
fiction has its reason for being."
We must admit to Mr. Rottensteiner and to ourselves that we failed to create
an SF which lived up to our vision, and that even the vision faded. What
We starry-eyed youth came to accept more and more the flip whimsy of the
other fans among whom we found ourselves. First because we did find ourselves
among them, reason enough; too, some of us may have soured because our
millennium failed to arrive on schedule; but other things were eroding our
There was this technical limitation: Whereas the real future incorporates a
profusion of simultaneous novelties, whose effects can scarcely be disentangled,
the fictional future must bring out a few, to avoid swamping the finite readers,
and to allow tracing effects. I am not resisting this necessity; but it did
militate against our fidelity to real future and for a rapprochement with
the fantasy-writer's arbitrary contrary-to-fact hypothesis.
Another reason was our genuine eclecticism. Though mostly socialists, we
found that Zamiatin, Huxley, and Heinlein, who were not, had something to teach
us--even something to teach us about socialism. We ought to have been prepared
by John Stuart Mill (and Marx!) to understand that the truth is many-sided and
imperfectly known, so our doctrine must be dialectical and evolving. To our
discredit, we tended rather to the non-dialectical eclecticism which accepts
contradictory ideas without confronting them. Marx, Spencer, Freud, Jung,
Bates--who cares, as long as there's a story in it? We ought not to have
decided, just because saw that true ideas may come from unexpected sources, that
there are no false ideas.
A final reason was the pose of innocuousness. When the inquisitor looked in
on the Renaissance humanist, he was assured, "Ah, but though my book sets
forth the heresies reason has taught me, I retract them all on its last page,
for when reason and the Church conflict then reason must be in error." When
the inquisitor looks in on the SF writer, on the other hand, he is assured,
"Ah, but the revolutions and utopias in my stories are mere escape
fantasies, and even my social satires are mere jokes. Everything is grist for
the SF mill. You'll see--my next story will be about a witch who's allergic to
broomsticks, ha-ha." This disguise had done good service to our precursors,
and was easily available to us in the 50's when we needed it. How natural that
the mask should now seem part of our face. Natural, and pitiful. Let's express
contentious ideas obliquely when we must, but let's dare to have them, and
The future is still real, still coming at us, and at least as unknown as we
thought it. Let's face it with the respect it deserves.
Marxism as an official philosophy is also important for SF, just as
Catholicism is (witness Blish's excellent A Case of Conscience) but more
so: it is a weightier social fact in the world of the real near future. So yes,
let's admit it to our fictional futures. But caution! For SF, however Marxist,
official Marxism can't be the right stance. No official philosophy can.
Governmental apologetics are not always false, but they are always one-sided;
usually their time-scale is in months not centuries, though they claim
By all means let SF stretch the people's minds to accommodate a multiplicity
of possible futures. Not just futures into which they may be herded. Futures
they urgently have to see coming, and struggle to avert or to realize.
NOTES (BY RDM)
1Mr. Blish's essay appeared in George Hay, ed., The
Disappearing Future (London: Panther, 1970). Mr. Rottensteiner's
present article is from his review of that book, which appeared, in German, in
his fan magazine, Quarber Merkur No. 26.
2For some reminiscences of this group, see Robert
A.W. Lowndes, "A Eulogy for the Dying Science-Fiction Magazines," Riverside
3Mr. Blish has written us that the books he had in
mind were Robert A. Heinlein, Beyond This Horizon (1942) and L. Sprague
de Camp, The Stolen Dormouse 1941). He might well have added James
Blish and Norman L. Knight, A Torrent of Faces (1967).